Outsourced innovation

There is news this week that retail giant (and flagbearer of alternative ownership models) John Lewis is launching its own tech accelerator initiative into what is an increasingly competitive market for helping companies with ideas.

Having spent some time on the periphery of the Tech City hub in East London, it strikes me that this is at once an interesting model for a company to innovate in the digital realm, but also an increasingly challenging one. The first wave of accelerators (initiatives to help support and nurture early-stage technology start-ups) was funded by the tech investment community. The second wave was tech companies themselves (with initiatives like Google Campus). We are now seeing a number of mainstream companies trying to find innovative ideas in the maelstrom of Silicon Roundabout and beyond.

Last night I was chatting with an old friend who has worked for years in the food industry, innovating new products. His take on effective innovation was that you need a big funnel of ideas, learn how to filter the duff ones early, and then be rigorous throughout the rest of the process to deliver products that customers want (but often that they don’t necessarily want). In his world maybe 1 in 10 ideas that make it through the first sift make it to market. Traditional R&D models have a necessary inefficiency to get great new ideas out of the end.

With so many organisation now competing in the accelerator model (an early stage sift if ever there was one), are we approaching a point where there aren’t going to be enough ideas to feed through the funnel? And what does a brand need to be interesting enough to get good ideas to engage in their programmes when they are competing against the tech world’s giants? John Lewis is a fine company, one I admire a lot, but will they (with their geographically-limited footprint, and non-tech background) be enough of a draw when pitted against the likes of Google, Amazon and Microsoft? Especially when the gold-rush packages being waved around by the likes of Facebook recently will surely distract many into what ideas they have in the first place?

One of the projects I’ve got on the go at the moment is some work to look at the processes and support of mentoring and accelerator initiatives. At present, much of the model seems to hinge around the idea that mentoring is a process by which you get someone who as “done it”, and they will then impart their wisdom to someone who hasn’t. That Expert Coaching model is based on one big assumption – that those who can, can teach.

But would an accelerator programme based on a principal that effective innovation depends on giving participants the faculties to learn be compelling enough to rise them above the big money of the Silicon Valley big boys? If you’re interested in finding out more, do drop me a line

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